WC72- Praxis


The publisher of this journal, wrote to me about the spiritual guidance every little Gay boy gets from films, that “They’re practically inspired texts for us.” I believe that the hushed time we spend in vast dark chambers, or sitting in darkened rooms, taps into the deepest shamanic roots of our history, into the sacred rites of the Eleusinian and other Mysteries, where up from the silent blackness rise the collective stories of our tribe, our people, our lineage.

My evolving Gay psyche was informed by two different kinds of films, which I began to watch around the time that I reached puberty — Steve Reeves muscle flicks, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. In the argument about whether Gay identity is innate or constructed I always cite this as an example: I’ve never met a single straight man who stayed home to watch Steve or Fred and Ginger. But I’ve met a good many Gay men who did, often long before we came out, because we recognized something about ourselves in those films, something campy, defiant, heroic, and gender-reconstructing that speaks to one aspect of who we are. And for me in my closet, they were sexy — and safe. Steve always got his clothes ripped off by equally hunky adversaries, perhaps an ancestor of porn films. And Fred and Ginger always went from dislike or disconnection to romance, with music and dance, an ancestor perhaps of discos. But none of them kissed.

The first homosexual movie I ever saw was The Boys in the Band, which came out in 1970. I went to see it with my father and stepmother the summer after my freshman year in college, in a theatre a few blocks away from the Stonewall Inn. We’d walked over there the morning after the riot, when a friend of my stepmother’s called to tell her that “the fags” had rioted the night before. I viewed The Boys in the Band as if it were a documentary. Terrified of my fate, not wanting to be that torturously unhappy, I dived even deeper into my closet for a few years. It was yet another film, Women in Love, with screenplay by Larry Kramer, which gave me the courage to finally come out to myself, in my junior year of college, in 1972, sitting by myself in a dark theatre on the outskirts of Jerusalem during a matinee. Even though it had a tragic ending, seeing two men attempting to connect in a physical/spiritual way gave me a sense that something was possible I had only thus far dreamed of.

A year later, and two or three months into our relationship, my first boyfriend planned a surprise dinner for me. Leading me up the stairs to the top of our building in Berkeley, we scrambled up the sloped shed above the stairs – to the flat roof above it where Richard had spread out a yellow tablecloth, place settings, and covered bowls of food. At the far end of that small space he’d set up his little television, having borrowed extension cords from half our neighbors so that he could plug it in up there. The city stretched out below us, rolling down to the bay, with the hills of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance creating a perfect back-frame for the television. As the sun was setting, gloriously, and twinkling lights were coming on all around us, Richard leaned over to turn on the TV, just as Fred and Ginger in The Gay Divorcee began. He too had stayed home from school as a teenager to watch it.

Fred and Ginger and other movies taught me several things about love and romance, which have led me astray for forty years. I’ve made too many life decisions based on fantasies from films I watched as a boy, and continue to hope for movie love scenes in my real life. Granted, some of what I learned from films came from my hunger to understand a way of living that wasn’t being explained to me. From what I gleaned I assembled a perception of life based on footage rather than on walked experience, because films were the only resource I had. I was in my early twenties before I saw a photograph of two men kissing, and I was in my mid- twenties before I saw a Gay film, the documentary Word is Out, which opened in 1977. It was my introduction to Harry Hay and a world of spirit that I needed to discover. And then in 1982, in the same theatre, I watched Making Love, the big first Hollywood movie to deal with Gay love. I remember the thrill of seeing two men together, larger than life, on a huge screen in a dark packed room. I felt that we had finally arrived, been granted authenticity by the myth-making apparatus of our time. And the film hauntingly paralleled the end of my relationship with Richard. Ginger and Fred began with conflict. Richard and I ended with it, as did the couple in Making Love. And while the newly out and then abandoned lover ended up living happily ever after in a tidy coda to the film, I have yet to find the perfect husband.

Even as a boy I was appalled by the amount of money paid to performers, the amount of money it costs to produce a movie, and I still am. My father, a film lover, tried to convince me that the money went toward paying the salaries of all the people who worked on the film, but I was never convinced. What else could that money do, what else could it be spent on, I still ask myself? Why have we made idols, stars, out of performers, following the minute details of their lives instead of living our own? And do we even respect the collective art that goes into making a movie? Do we sit till the very last credit rolls by, honoring all who are named, or do we walk out, because for us the event ends when the performances stop? Do we clap at the end of movies? Did we ever? Is a movie a play in translation, from stage to screen, or is it a derivative of photographs? After all we still call them motion pictures. Do we get dressed up to go to the movies? We used to when I was a boy. Or is your movie life shaped by Netflix, a very private affair, even if shared with a few others?

Tom Spanbauer, in his magnificent new book, Now Is The Hour, wrote of our time in movie theatres, “Magic when the lights went dark. The dimmer the lights, the more the something inside so covered up and careful in you came up and out.” Sometimes what comes up and out is good inspiration. But sometimes what comes up isn’t such a good thing. It’s what I call un-spiration. Negative guidance that misleads rather than informs.

    1. Write down the names of the three movies that have inspired you the most.
    2. What did you learn from them and how has it enhanced your life?
    3. Write down the three movies that have most led you astray.
    4. What faulty information did you gleam from them, and what can you to do reprogram it in your psyche?

For many of us films are “inspired texts.” But not for all of us. In eight years together my ex and I only went to the movies twice. He found the sound and large screen too stressful and overwhelming, too intense and too artificial, although I did drag him off to see It’s A Wonderful Life and The Gay Divorcee. And when I go to the movies I always take earplugs with me. These days, I don’t go very often. My primary texts were and remain, not paradoxically – books. Hence my place in a magazine and not at a film festival. But what comes up and out for you these illuminated texts?

  • If you are a regular moviegoer, don’t watch any films for at least a month, and ask yourself – “What am I using movies for? Is it a good thing?” Notice how much time you spend talking about movies, as if what was going on in those fictional dimensions was reality. Are you fed by films, do they inspire you to make the world a better place, or are they an escape from reality? If so, what can you do to change your life?
  • If you are someone who doesn’t watch movies at all, or very often, please try and see at least two movies and preferably three in the next month. Ask yourself – “Why am I not going to the movies? Is that a good thing?” Are you avoiding films because you are avoiding life, or because ________ (Fill in the blank.) Perhaps it’s time to review your relationship to movies. Perhaps it’s time to explore a new genre.

Movies may be the mass shamanic experience of our time. Or maybe they aren’t. We don’t even have good language for talking about the movies. We say, “I saw…. last night. Have you seen it yet?” as if the seeing were all there is. We have no way to merge the seeing and hearing of a film into one word. And therein the paradox remains. Film cannot capture or duplicate experience. But, perhaps, it can explain it.

This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane.   We are a reader-supported journal and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going.  So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!

Andrew Ramer lives in San Francisco.   He is the author of the gay classic  Two Flutes Playing  from White Crane Press (available at www.whitecranebooks.org)   
Praxis is a regular feature in White Crane.

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